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Can a Progressive Run New York City?

David Callahan

The odds seem pretty high that a real live economic progressive, namely Bill de Blasio, will become the next mayor of New York City. That would be a big deal, since New York's mayor is a national figure and inequality is arguably our most pressing national problem. As Eric Alterman wrote recently about de Blasio:

He has made economic inequality—a “tale of two cities,” as he calls it—the centerpiece of his campaign. His most significant proposal, a slight tax hike on incomes above $500,000 to pay for citywide pre-kindergarten classes and after-school programs, is a near-perfect expression of the kind of sensible public policy that most Democrats have feared to propose in recent years, lest they be labeled “tax-and-spend liberals.”

New York City has a higher level of inequality than just about any place in America, and while mayoral powers are limited—for instance, that tax hike would have to be approved in Albany—an assault on the city's vast income gap would be powerfully symbolic.   

The centrality of inequality in de Blasio's campaign is yet more evidence of a shifting focus of progressives away from social issues and toward economic issues. It's about time, given that the left has generally been winning the culture war for thirty years while America has become a more unequal society, economically. 

But even as the focus changes, one question I wonder about is how a modern progressive like de Blasio is likely to handle a key social challenge that has long bedeviled the left—namely, how to manage the tension between individual rights and community well being. 

Nowhere is this tension more profound than in an urban setting, where people must co-exist in close quarters, and nowhere are more people crowded together in America than in New York City.

The last time New York had a liberal mayor, when David Dinkins was in office, a rights-oriented liberalism was near an apex. It was also the age of the squeegee man, and liberals seem perplexed—and even paralyzed—by the tension between community needs and individual rights. A big reason that a Republican has ruled City Hall ever since was because New Yorkers perceived that liberals simply weren't up to the job of maintaining social order. 

Now, a quarter century later, the left may finally get another shot at running New York. Yet, as far as I can see, there hasn't been a lot of deep progressive thinking about the "quality of life" issues that New Yorkers care so much about. 

To be sure, there's been a lot of good thinking about public safety in New York narrowly defined—see this essay, for example, by Michael Jacobson and Martha King. Progressives have great ideas when it comes to incarceration, drugs, and policing—especially the loathsome stop-and-frisk policy. 

But what about other social order issues? What will de Blasio do if the squeegee men return in force to intersections? If aggressive panhandling again becomes part of the subway experience? If homeless people again occupy one or more major parks in the city? If drug dealers return in large numbers to public spaces? And so on.

New York is so clean and sanitized these days that it can be easy to forget— or glamorize—the chaos of the past that made the city feel untenable. It's also easy to forget that this chaos led to the rise of Giuliani and Bloomberg after him. 

An economic progressive in City Hall would be a good thing. But if that mayor doesn't also know how to maintain social order, any new attack on inequality is likely to be a one-term affair.